The implications of Britain’s widening inquiry into historical allegations of paedophilia against celebrities are deeply disturbing – but they are also a powerful reminder of important changes in our society.
It is beyond sick that powerful individuals such as the late broadcaster Jimmy Savile appear to have been shielded by colleagues and authorities who apparently knew they were molesting youngsters. Shadows hang over entertainer Rolf Harris and Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell as well. But the Savile affair dates back to an era in which society had a woefully myopic view on children’s safety – and somehow celebrities got a tacit free pass.
Popular songs for decades virtually normalised the sexual exploitation of young girls. It beggars belief that no one ever questioned Dragon’s classic Are You Old Enough?, or, more blatantly, the live version of the Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues, in which Mick Jagger warbles that he knows the girl is only 13 but “No, I don’t wanna see your ID/It’s no capital crime.” In other versions, Jagger also suggests the teen bring a friend upstairs, and bets “your mama don’t know you scratch like that”.
Celebrities have always enjoyed a degree of protection in that area. No one tried to prosecute rockers Bill Wyman or Jerry Lee Lewis for statutory rape for consorting with underage girls. It took decades for the authorities to catch up with director Roman Polanski; authorities in Europe seemed comfortable to provide a haven for the great artist despite his well-attested sexual abuse of a young girl.
Nowadays we upbraid rappers for describing women as “bitches” and glorifying brutal submission of women, yet a blatant thread of paedophile fantasy has run through popular culture since rock and roll was invented.
On his recent tour here, Coronation Street star William Roache accurately, if somewhat shockingly, explained the different attitudes that have prevailed around celebrities, saying it was common for teenage girls to cluster around TV stars in studios and at parties. The actual age question was easily fudged – by both parties. “They don’t ask for [the girls’] birth certificate,” Roache said.
Now arrested on suspicion of raping a 15-year-old, he argued that celebrities were prey to sexually active young girls who seemed much older than they were, and could be “caught in this trap”. Roache appeared to shift blame further by referring to karma from previous lives. Actually, society rightly takes the view that however provocative and mature an underage person might appear, the responsibility lies firmly with the adult.
Social mores have changed, very much for the better, hand in hand with more vigorous enforcement of the law. Fawnedover male celebrities are more likely to be derided and deplored for entering into relationships with young teens, even those of age, than be indulgently thought “an old dog”. The inequality of power and the harm that can be done in such relationships are acknowledged and likely to be taken seriously.
That the British sting includes probable molesters of boys as well is bleakly unsurprising. The boys would have been even less likely to speak up than the girls, in an era when homosexuality was regarded as a great deal more undesirable than underage sex.
It’s also telling that the Savile panic has coincided with Irish authorities finally officially apologising to the many young women who were, effectively, enslaved in convent laundries for much of last century – sometimes for life – for the “sin” of becoming pregnant while unwed.
Institutionalised misogyny and exploitation of the weak by the powerful are not ills that passed New Zealand by – on the contrary. One big wake-up was in the late 1990s when it was realised that prominent doctor Morgan Fahey had got away with a series of sexual assaults despite complaints because, as one of his employers later admitted, they simply couldn’t believe someone of Fahey’s standing would do such things. Precautionary measures were put in place, but to protect his reputation rather than those of his patients. Likewise the shock over Northland deputy principal James Parker, who has pleaded guilty to dozens of offences against boys, but was unsuspected, partly because of his perceived guilelessness and adult girlfriend.
Sexual exploitation is still very much with us. What is finally changing, however, is that we are now far more vigilant, less susceptible to charm or authority – and less ready to forgive a leering, winking line in a popular song.